As a game, Minecraft offers an incredible amount of entertainment a replayability. Since the year it was released, I have spent many hours in these procedurally generated worlds fending off creepers, building structures to survive the night, and mining precious ores to progress further into the game. Minecraft is a game that will define a generation… But it will do more than that.
Minecraft started as a project by Markus Persson. The intent was to create an endless world with RPG elements. For the first few days in the game, the player needs to quickly mine resources and build defenses in order to survive the night. Lethal mobs of creatures come out at night to attack the player. Along with building structures, the player needs to build weapons and tools. The weapons help in fighting the creatures and the tools allow for quicker mining. As the days go by in the game, surviving turns to mining for precious resources. The further you go down into the world, the more precious the minerals are. Crafting begins to get more difficult as well, needing much rarer materials. Once the player has built up enough defenses and has made the right tools, they can make the journey to the “End” and defeat the Ender Dragon. It’s possible for a single player to get that far, but it’s much easier with a few players and needs a lot of effort and organization.
Generally, these goals would be achieved through institutional organization. From what I could find, institutional organization is based on normative procedures. These procedures are then standardized and instituted across the organization. In terms of Minecraft, it would be that one person, or a group of persons, are responsible for maintaining the ovens to smelt the precious metals. Another person, or group, is responsible for chopping down tress and collecting wood resources. One final person, or group, would be in charge of mining the precious metals. At the top, there would be one more person, or group, that decides what all these other groups are responsible for and determines their course. As this is generally how most workplaces operate, I expected Minecraft would operate the same. I was wrong.
It wasn’t until I recently started playing Minecraft with my five year old son that I saw Minecraft as a tool for learning instead of just a game. To take it even further, at the beginning of the semester, I built a server and invited 10 people to spend some time together in this server and analyze how Minecraft changes the way people interact and communicate. The most obvious impact I noticed was how traditional institutional organization went completely out the window inside the world of Minecraft.
The ten people I invited were a combination of my brothers, my friends, and my son. They ranged in age from 5 to 35 and half had held jobs and the other half have not. I believed this to be a good combination of people to study from. When I first invited them to the world, the two that were most experiences with Minecraft took over the course of direction. They informed us that we needed to find a good place to set up our homes that would be close to all the resources we needed. After we found a base, the group split up and claimed various places as our personal homes. At this point, I would expect us all to work together to achieve our goals. This isn’t what happened.
People did split up, but retained focus on the goal. They built their separate houses and mined their own resources. Resources were kept operate but pooled. If anyone needed something, they were allowed to take them so that we all kept going in the same direction, at the same pace. After a few days of personal exploring, we came together to build a giant mine. No one person took control, no one person made all the decisions, it all happened organically. The most notable observation in the mining process was smelting. The ovens needed to be maintained to continue smelting precious ores so that we could continue. Instead of having one person do that, we all would maintain it as we walked by. If someone saw something that needed to be done, they just did it. In institutional organization, a single entity would be responsible for all of this. Either making the decision where to mine, maintaining the furnaces, or mining down into the earth.
After a few days of mining, we had enough resources to find the End and the Ender Dragon. We needed to find a portal to the End in a forest mansion. There was zero traditional organization in this happening. We all just started exploring until we found the portal. When it came time to fight the Ender Dragon, organization did come into play. However, it was very loose. The organization observed was based on roles. Specific actions were not delivered, but roles of archer, swordsmen, medic, and mage, were defined. As of 5 days ago, we defeated the Ender Dragon.
Minecraft has sold over 100 million copies worldwide and is on every major console and mobile platform there is. And through my experiment with my son, family, and friends, there is one final conclusion I could come up with. Minecraft is teaching an entire generation to operate independently and achieve complex goals without any sort of traditional institutional organization.
This experiment was to see how people, across all ages, operate in the digital world of Minecraft. Moving forward, and as a father, I want to do more research into how this will affect the workplace in 20 years. If these children can operate under these conditions, will they when they find a job?
“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet”… Victor Frankenstein continues reflecting on a dark, dreary November night. And as his Creation takes its first breath, Victor realizes “the different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature” (Shelley, 1994, pg 42-43). In describing that moment, a self-proclaimed “catastrophe”, Victor Frankenstein perfectly interprets the transcendence of man and machine, an event, bound only by time, that might lead to the inevitable.
Mary Shelley’s classic depiction of artificial intelligence (AI) may be cruel, at best, however it portrays a more primal and humanistic fear of technological progress. A fear that is rooted in self-destruction; a fear of an impending Singularity. At a high level, the singularity represents a unity between organic life and synthetic intelligence, along with the consequences that soon follow. The evolution of artificial intelligence and technology suggests such an event will happen. However, in order to justify even the slightest suggestion of a Singularity, the event needs to be clearly defined and the current state and path of artificial intelligence examined.
Artificial intelligence began as a science with a clear objective, “to replicate human level intelligence in a machine” (Brooks, 1987). As a technology, it received massive investments that allowed for momentum to carry the technology further, and quicker, than any other technology before. In time, individuals began to notice the energy the industry had and hypothesized an event that may occur if this energy was not regulated. This event is defined as a technological, or biological, Singularity, dependent on the theory one chooses to believe in.
The first to describe such an event was Vernor Vinge within NASA’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace. Vinge proposed that, by the year 2030, the world will see “the development of computers that are awake and superhumanly intelligent”, that “computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent”, and “biological science may find ways to improve upon natural human intellect” (Vinge, 1991, pg 11). In the same way modern technology, across all industries, improves upon itself given the correct amount of time, this hypothesis imposes that the rapid progress made in the space of artificial intelligence will lead to an “intelligence explosion” (Good, 1965). This explosion will be a series of self-improvements, conceived by the synthetic agents humans will create, to allow for the destruction of the human race. As such, this is the path of the technological Singularity. According the Vinge, “we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology” (Vinge, 1991, pg 16).
Ray Kurzweil, in his book The Singularity is Near, defined the Singularity as a very different event. Kurzweil saw that transcending human biology is no mere task. His stance was to reverse engineer the human brain and interface it with a machine. This meant more than just “adding a fourth cell phone or doubling the number of unwanted e-mails”. Kurzweil implies that the Singularity “means perfecting the technologies to conquer cancer and other devastating diseases, creating ubiquitous wealth to overcome poverty, cleaning up the environment from the effects of the first industrial revolution, and overcoming many other age-old problems” (Kurzweil, 2005). Among this list includes the ability to overcome aging, reduce disease, and, in some cases, even defeat Death himself. The intention of amplifying human cognitive abilities will greatly reduce the impact that humans have had on the world, furthering many to believe this biological Singularity to be the most likely to occur through the sheer will of humanity to correct their mistakes.
One aspect of these theories, however, has made quite the impact in the scientific community and has developed an ideology unto itself: transhumanism. According to the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies, transhumans are defined as the effort of “modifying the human species via any kind of emerging science, including genetic engineering, digital technology, and bioengineering” (LaGrandeur, 2014). Transhumanist search to enhance the human condition through bioaugmentation, not in an effort to correct any kind of abilities, but to improve normal human functions. By extension of transhumanism, the idea of posthumans has also come into existence. Posthumans can be described as the “condition in which humans and intelligent technology are becoming increasingly intertwined” (LaGrandeur, 2014). Through this belief, humanity evolves to the point that function takes precedence over form. To further the definition of transhumanism, Max More described it as,
both a reason-based philosophy and a cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition by means of science and technology. Transhumanists seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values. (2009)
Through this definition, transhumanism can be interpreted as the promotion of all sentient life. Upon the event of a Singularity, humanity becomes more of a process and the human body, or any body, becomes the equivalent of an accessory. Whether it’s a human or a machine, humanity will evolve past the need to be bound to a physical form.
When studying the progression of technology and the likelihood of a technological Singularity, Vernor Vinge’s hypothesis, four main points indicate its probability. The first confesses that “the study of the history of technology reveals that technological progress has long been accelerating”. The second states that “there are good reasons to think that this acceleration will continue for at least several more decades”. The third admits that “if it does continue, our technological achievements will become so great that our bodies, minds, societies, and economies will be radically transformed”. The final statement suggests “it is likely that this disruptive transformation will occur” (Eden, Steanhart, Pearce, Moor, 2012). However, what technological advancements suggest this, or Kurzweil’s theory, will ever occur?
The Singularity, as an event horizon that will change all matters of life on Earth, cannot be easily predicted. Both theories have the Singularity occurring around the year 2045. In an effort to argue for the progress towards a Singularity, Kurzweil presents the Law of Accelerating Returns. This “law” suggests that instead of steady progression towards the end goal, technological advancement will exponentially accelerate. Kurzweil suggests,
We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity (2001)
The rate of technological growth was fairly flat until the Industrial Revolution. Once it began, the rate at which technology evolved became very exponential, and continues to this very day. If humanity were to view the Digital Revolution (the late 20th century) in the same manner, the assumption that a Singularity will occur in our lifetime becomes increasingly more likely.
In order for the Singularity to occur before 2047, a few milestones must first be achieved. This path is based on resources, or technologies, becoming available to the populace in an almost infinite supply and are only a handful of many different possibilities. The first milestone would be to have 5 billion people on the planet connected to the Internet with speeds greater than 10mbps. Once the infrastructure is established, it is likely that this will happen before 2025. The second milestone would be a worldwide capacity of 1 terawatts of photovoltaic energy. Again, infrastructure needs to be established, however, this energy source will decrease human dependence on finite natural resources. This can be expected sometime around 2030. The third milestone would to have 90 percent of the world’s population living in developed countries, as determined by a UN Human Development Index greater than .8000 (equivalent to the United States in the 1960’s). Through worldwide efforts, and the advancement of technology, this should be reached by 2035. The last milestone would be an artificial intelligence that can pass the Turing Test. Developed by Alan Turing, the Turing Test is specifically designed to test the responses of a machine. Instead of testing to find the correct answer, Turing examines how humanlike a response is and whether or not a machine can imitate a human. Effective imitation, which also imposes more thought like functions, is estimated to be achieved around 2040. Although there are many different milestones that need to be achieved, the combination of these four will set the world up to be prepared for the likely Singularity. (The Futurist, n.d.)
The possibility of a Singularity is easy to argue, however, it’s just as easy is argue against. The most critical aspect of Kurzweil’s theory rests on the Law of Accelerated Returns, yet this law is not a physical one. This is an assumption using past technological and scientific progress to predict future progress, a concept that is only valid while true (Allan, 2011). It can also be clearly argued that the current level of understanding of the brain is in no way ready, nor will it be anytime soon, for the levels of reverse engineering needed to incite a Singularity (Hartsfield, 2013). Lastly, most mainstream support for technological progress is dependent on hardware advancements. However, just as the hardware needs to be developed, so too does the software that runs on it, and not just artificial intelligence (Allan, 2011). If a Singularity is to be achieved by Kurzweil’s and Vinge’s predictions, these hurdles need to be addressed.
Technological progress will bring with it a Singularity. When it will happen is up for debate, with multiple trends leading in very different directions. Will it be a single event like a machine gaining consciousness, or will it be a decade long process of engineering a brain? No one quite knows, nor can it be accurately calculated. However, whether it’s the technological demise proposed by Vinge or, more likely, the biological transformation put forth by Kurzweil, “we are the last. The last generation to be unaugmented. The last generation to be intellectually alone. The last generation to be limited by our bodies” (Beight & Reddell, n.d.).